10 Sep

Oregon primaries now more exclusive than democratic

In a rare display of unity, the Oregon Democratic and Republican parties, along with most of the other pillars of Oregon politics, are opposed to Measure 90, and you can see why.

Measure 90 (the “top-two primary”) would let anybody vote for whomever she wanted in the May primary, and the top two finishers – who might be two Democrats, or two Republicans, or one of each, or two Prohibitionists (probably not in the metropolitan area) – would be alone on the November ballot. But everybody – major parties, minor parties, people who call you up at home at dinnertime to plead for money – wants to be on the November ballot, when the air is crisp, voters are paying attention and TV news actually notices there’s an election going on.

Fair enough.

On the other hand, we need to find some way of giving most Oregonians a voice in who represents them.

That’s not the same as letting them vote, which most Oregonians loyally do every November. But by then the game is mostly over, with most seats decided in the May primaries, which are limited to an exclusive and diminishing percentage of the state’s voters.

In 2012, Oregonians elected 16 state senators. In only two races were the November margins less than 18 percentage points; in those two the margin was more than nine points, or close to the 10-point gap that marks an official landslide.

In state House races, at most a quarter could be considered hard contested. Despite their moving devotion to the November elections, Oregon Democrats failed to put up November nominees for two Senate seats and nine House seats; Republicans passed on two Senate seats and four House seats.
In real terms, a supermajority of the seats in both chambers were decided by 8 p.m. on primary day – with most voters from most districts looking in from the outside.

Oregon is one of just a dozen states where voting in party primaries is limited to voters registered in that party, a proportion of Oregonians getting smaller and smaller. In 1960, as Jeff Mapes reported in The Oregonian earlier this year, 98 percent of Oregon voters were registered Democrats or Republicans; now the number is less than 70 percent, and dropping.

Younger Oregonians, it seems, may be willing to vote for the major parties, but would rather not be associated with them, and sometimes you can see their point.

If the major Oregon parties still get fainting spells at the idea of the top-two system that Washington and California have, which has produced more contested November elections – even if sometimes between members of the same party – there’s another way to avoid ignoring the rising tide of Oregon independents.

The parties could open up their own primaries. In a variety of systems, that’s the situation in most states, where party primaries are open either to all voters or at least to unaffiliated voters.

In Illinois, for example, primary voters can pick either party, telling their choice to a polling place judge who must repeat it “in a distinct tone of voice, sufficiently loud to be heard by all persons in the polling place.” Apparently in Chicago, you can vote in a Republican primary if you want to, but they want your name.

Which is still, of course, more inclusive than the Oregon system.

But Oregon parties have resisted opening their primaries as well, preferring to keep their own company. Once you let other people vote, you never know what might happen.

The most hospitable gesture recently was made by the Oregon Republican party, which for 2012 voted to keep its presidential and legislative primaries closed, but to let unaffiliated voters vote to help choose its nominees for secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general. The problem was that for two of those jobs, no Republican filed to run in the primary.

For independents, it was like being invited to a party and the host not showing up. Maybe Republicans hoped that if they let independents vote for those slots, one of them would run.
But disdain for Oregon independent voters is bipartisan. Both parties firmly shun input from independents, even though ignoring a steadily increasing hunk of the electorate produces a system that’s neither democratic nor republican. If we insist on staying with our current structure, we’ll have more and more elected positions effectively decided by a smaller and smaller percentage of voters.

This may not say much for the system’s legitimacy, but at least it will be simple.

And actual representative government can be such a hassle.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 9/7/14.

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